Now THIS is closure.
With a ruling filed Monday, Georgia's highest court unanimously said Columbia County was within its legal authority when it established the stormwater utility in 1999, and began charging property owners in the heavily developed part of the county a fee for storm-drainage projects.
Four Columbia County residents filed suit against the fee shortly it went into effect, alleging the fee was an illegal tax. So confident were they of success that their attorney agreed to take the case on a contingency-fee basis -- meaning he would get paid only if he won.
Unfortunately, Columbia County taxpayers didn't have such a deal. We've had to shell out thousands of dollars as the county defended the stormwater utility. It's too bad the Georgia Supreme Court's decision didn't also provide for recovery of those fees from the folks who filed the suit in the first place.
Still, while the process was expensive for taxpayers, it will provide a useful service statewide. Just as Cherokee County's successful defense of its impact fees on new development has given the green light for other fast-growing communities, so is Columbia County's win on the stormwater utility fee also giving Georgia counties a new tool for meeting federal drainage mandates.
While the attorney for the challengers worries that property owners will be raided as a result, it's important to keep in mind that this fee is just that -- a fee designed to target a specific group rather than hitting all property owners. The day will likely come when all of Columbia County is developed and all property owners will pay; but until that day comes, it doesn't make sense to charge rural landowners in Winfield for overdeveloped Martinez property.
And for those inclined to ask who allowed the overdevelopment, remember that many of the problems with drainage come from older developments with deteriorating drains. The county has since enacted stronger rules to require far better handling of runoff from construction and paving.
The stormwater utility fee is a piece of that package, and given time will improve all of the infrastructure in the developed part of the county. (We won't hold our breath, but maybe one day the fee can end when the work is done.)
Wth the fight over the legality of the fee now over, the next battle in the courts can begin: Many in the stormwater utility coverage area refused to pay their fees while the issue was tied up in court. The county can now begin to aggressively pursue payment from everyone who owes money.
Those unpaid fees won't make up for all the legal fees already spent, but it's a start.
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